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September 28
07:40 2020


How can balancing realism and optimism help during these challenging times?

By Karl Sherrill

Almost 20 years ago, Jim Collins introduced us to the concept of “Good to Great” in his book by the same name. I read this book when it was first published, and it sits on my desk as a resource today. It came into my mind again during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Good to Great, Collins introduces us to the Stockdale Paradox by sharing the story of Admiral James Stockdale. He was the highest-ranking United States military officer held captive at the Vietnamese prisoner of war camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. For eight years, Admiral Stockdale lived in squalid conditions and was tortured numerous times. Many other American service members were prisoners in the same conditions there and did not make it out. Admiral Stockdale was the exception.

Collins looks at the difference between the admiral and his story and those who died in captivity. The answer: “The optimists didn’t make it.” This sounds strange at first. I consider myself an optimist. Here is where the paradox comes in. Admiral Stockdale explained: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Survival in difficult times requires a brutally honest acknowledgement of the difficulties you face, balanced with the optimism that you will not allow those circumstances to defeat you.

I was struck by how the Stockdale Paradox parallels my thinking during this COVID-19 pandemic. “It will only be a couple of weeks and we’ll be back in the office.” And a couple of weeks would come and go. “My son will be back in school in time for his high school graduation.” And graduation time would come and go. “We’ll be out of this and back to normal by summer.” And summer has come and gone. With each coming and going I found myself disappointed, at times heartbroken. See the similarity? I saw optimism as a way to stay positive. How did it become a negative to be positive? Therein lies the paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox story opened my eyes. Collins goes on to say that the secret to success, to being great, is found in the appropriate balance of optimism with realism. Survival in difficult times requires a brutally honest acknowledgement of the difficulties you face, balanced with the optimism that you will not allow those circumstances to defeat you. Throughout, you must hold on to an unwavering commitment to yourself that you will survive. The recognition of this paradox at play in my own COVID-19 situation provided the needed balance of realism with optimism. It also freed me to focus on some important lessons the pandemic is teaching. The Stockdale Paradox is a game changer. Here are a few of those lessons learned.

Lesson One: Work/life balance

Work/life balance is not a new concept. Pre-pandemic, many organizations were actively promoting this balance among their teams. What is new is the pressure that the pandemic has brought to bear on work/life balance. Teams were forced to abruptly bring their offices home. For many, this was the first time they found themselves working from home. For others, working from home was not new. For both new employees and seasoned veterans, the pandemic brought a new dynamic to the home office. We found ourselves surrounded by others also working or studying from home: spouses, partners, and children. The lines between work and home life became blurred. With no clear delineation between work and home, people felt like they were “always on.”

Here are three suggestions to help bring balance back to this setting:

  • Set boundaries. Designate and be accountable for specific work areas in the home. Be equally accountable for designated personal spaces. Engage and focus on work when you enter the work spaces and mentally unplug when you enter the personal spaces.
  • Schedule everything. With so many things outside of our control because of the pandemic, we can control how we spend our day. Take time to schedule your work and home life. This is simple but not easy. Protect your schedule and review tomorrow’s schedule the night before. Studies have shown that knowing what tomorrow will hold will help put your mind at ease. This in turn leads to more restful sleep. Start your day with a quick review so you are better equipped to control the day’s activities.
  • Schedule healthy lifestyle time. As you build your schedule, don’t neglect your mental and physical health. Build in the time for walks, other forms of exercise, journaling, reflection, reading, and so on. Protect this time just as as you would a new business appointment.

Lesson Two: Networks—the lifeline

As we move through—and eventually out of—this pandemic, an active network may make the difference between success and failure. Businesses will be laser focused on recovery after this historic event. This will consume significant time on the calendars of decision makers, leaving little time for starting a new relationship. These leaders, however, will be ready to accept prequalified referrals from people they trust in their networks. To improve the chances that your networks overlap, be keenly focused on growing and nurturing your networks. LinkedIn continues to lead the way in professional networking. Plenty of LinkedIn 101-type books are available.

Here are a few of my favorite techniques along with a couple of tried and true old-school suggestions:

  • Increase connections. The exponential impact of one new connection is powerful. Start by making sure you have coworkers, friends, family, clients, and a center of influence in your network and work your way out from there. Take advantage of all the online webinars/meetings you have joined. Take note of fellow participants and send them an invitation to connect. Provide some context to the invitation to increase the chances of acceptance. Add a custom note referencing the webinar and mentioning something you found valuable and how you think your networks might work together.
  • Activity. Post and share articles regularly. Follow people, companies, and pages. Comment on articles, tagging the author of the post. Stay engaged in the conversation. Follow up with people who like or comment on your posts. Generate content and try a video post if you feel adventurous.
  • Daily calls. Develop a habit of calling people every day. During the pandemic, someone in my network shared a daily call list. It challenged you to make at least one call a day to the following groups: family, coworkers, clients, new business opportunities, center of influence, or a mentor. Remember, voice calling still works.
  • Handwritten notes. This is still a valuable practice and a way to differentiate yourself. Each Friday, I start my day with a handwritten note to someone. I keep every handwritten note I have received in my career; after 20 years, that stack is still low enough to fit in a small desk drawer. Handwritten notes stand out—be different!

Lesson Three: Virtual meeting strategies

Disruptions often carry a negative connotation, even though most people embrace disruptors. Think Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify, and so on. Virtual meetings are a disruptor of the pandemic. The meeting platforms (Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and so on) were long considered intriguing technology—nice to have but seldom used. Almost overnight, the pandemic thrust this technology into our daily life. Calendars began to fill up with back-to-back Zoom meetings, leaving many to describe the feeling at the end of the day as “Zoom fatigue.”

The lesson learned is that these platforms are here to stay. Here are some things to think about:

  • Staying connected. In the absence of in-person visits, virtual meetings have served as a valuable way to stay connected to people. Incorporate video as often as possible. Seeing each other and adding the nonverbal cues to a conversation makes all the difference and allows you to build a stronger connection.
  • Scheduling efficiencies. The elimination of travel from the meeting equation will affect future travel and entertainment budgets. Also, when we don’t have to account for travel time when coordinating a meeting, there are more openings. More openings lead to more flexibility for everyone’s schedule.
  • Go deeper and wider. Scheduling flexibility also affords the opportunity to include more people in the conversation and encourages them to express their needs. A broader view allows companies to strengthen partnerships and build more comprehensive solutions.
  • Where do we go from here? Virtual platforms will play a bigger role in business partnerships going forward. Finding the right mix of live meetings and virtual meetings will be critical. Are virtual meetings merely a stewardship tool? What is the right mix when building a new relationship? What technology do we need to invest in to enhance the virtual meeting experience? Successful organizations will be intentional about developing a virtual meeting strategy.

In times like these, we have a choice to make: retreat and hide or embrace change and move forward. Moving forward requires us to honestly assess the situation and then press onward. Disruptions of our normal routines can provide great opportunities to learn. Let us boldly embrace the changing times and lead our teams to great success in the future.

The author

Karl Sherrill Jr., CIC, CRM, MBA, isa vice president of Marsh & McLennan Agency, where he leads the national manufacturing industry practice, which collaborates with manufacturers to provide risk management and insurance services and consults on professional selling, workforce development, leader-ship, multigenerational dynamics, and continuity planning. Sherrill is a national faculty member of The National Alliance and serves on the board of directors of the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.

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